Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Questionable Deterrent

April 12th, 2012 · 3 Comments


In countries where the rule of law is less-than-robust, traffic cops can often best be classified as entrepreneurs rather than law-enforcement officials. Their main concern is not keeping the streets safe, but rather extracting bribes from unfortunate drivers—a pursuit that has made some Zambian policeman rather wealthy by that nation’s standards:

Home Affairs Minister Kennedy Sakeni has wondered how a traffic officer can amass wealth worth K1 billion and yet his salary was only below K3 million. Mr. Sakeni says his office is aware that some of the officers make as much as K30 million per week which is never deposited into the government treasury but instead pocketed by themselves.

If my math is correct here, then, a Zambian traffic cop’s actual income is approximately 333 times greater than his official income. So how can the government coax those police into giving up such filthy lucre, save for prosecuting each and every one to the fullest extent of the law?

The convenient answer is that the cops’ salaries must be raised in order to reduce the temptation to extract bribes. But by how much? There is simply no way that the government can afford to replace all of the incomes that a cop would lose out on by going legit. How much of an increase will set a corrupt official on the straight-and-narrow?

There is quite a bit of debate on this point. This landmark IMF paper from 1997 (PDF) suggests that a public-sector official’s wages must be two to three times greater than that of his private-sector counterpart—a laughable proposition here in the U.S., of course, where civil-service salaries always lag. This case study from Tanzania (PDF), by contrast, concludes that even a massive salary bump doesn’t always do the trick:

For a [revenue office] employee who is used to get bribes of TSh 20–30,000 daily, a tenfold increase of his salary from the present level will not make him desist from demanding and accepting bribes. The situation worsened even more due to the erosion by inflation of the initial pay rates for TRA staff, since nominal wages between 1996 and 2000 remained unchanged.

The ultimate solution probably has less to do with wages than with developing a sense of common purpose. But that’s a slow fix that requires leadership by example. The lowliest official has no incentive to change his ways when the highest is taking suspiciously frequent ski vacations in Gstaad.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Physicist

    As someone who grew up in a very corrupt area of America (just google NEPA corruption scandal and take your pick, although I suggest Kids for Cash), and was able to swing a “tit job” or two, I can tell you that if I got a raise, it wouldn’t do anything to keep me from stealing. I, and probably those cops, came to see skimming as part of the salary and benefits, like health or dental.

    To get me to stop, there’d probably have to be a huge bump in salary, along with the explicit instruction that the crap has to stop, and at least two people would have had to be made examples of before it would have stuck. I’d have to know my job is seriously on the line, and I’d need a real reason to care about losing it, especially considering all the other jobs I could go to and continue stealing, which, lets face it, is a more fun way to make money than earning it, even if you get less.

    Counteracting the culture of corruption at times seems harder than just building a new one from scratch. The easiest and cheapest solution seems to be “Throw the bums out”, and bring on a fresh crop with no old timers to corrupt them, and when someone inevitably gives it a shot on their own initiative, make sure they’re canned immediately. How much political sway traffic cops hold is a big factor too though, I suppose.

    Georgia did something like this: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4849472

    http://www.cracked.com/article_19489_5-terrible-ideas-that-solved-huge-global-problems.html

    Seemed to work out ok in the short term. (This was 2004, who knows how it is now.)

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Physicist: I remember that “kids for cash” scandal. Truly revolting.

    Interesting about Georgia’s experiment with wholesale housecleaning. I have a close friend who spends a lot of time there, and he is impressed by the low level of corruption (at least compared to the country’s neighbors). I’m sure such a move would be complicated by the details of a country’s bureaucratic structure, though–a minister might not be wiling to relinquish his hiring/firing power, especially if he is accustomed to taking bribes for awarding jobs.

    The bottom line, then, is that you need a pretty strong executive to pull off anti-corruption measures. But putting lots of power in one person’s hands obviously carries its own set of risks…

  • Physicist

    KfC was probably The Worst Thing, but there’s always something. Haven’t been home in a while, but over the last decade, there’s been a federal probe into having to kickback your way into a teaching job, County Commisioners taking crazy bribes

    http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/highlights-of-the-cordaro-munchak-trial-1.1264221#axzz1rxMzmVoE
    (this reads incredibly, just a day by day rundown of which crimes are outlined in the trial that day. Runs like two pages.)

    Ex-mayor’s kid got a 30k a year no-show job created for him in the city administration so the current mayor could get an endorsement. Fatal housefire put the spotlight on the fire chief, who hadn’t worked a full day in years, it goes on and on. That Championship Season was written by a Scrantonian, about Scranton, and filmed there. I wasn’t born at the time, but almost every corruption story in it has at least a kernel of truth, according to my family.

    My favorite story? We take in a lot of Jersey and New York’s garbage, and one winter someone on WM bribed someone in the city to substitute sand/cinders for broken glass from the dump. To be fair it was tumbled, so it wasn’t sharp, but the glare from the low winter sun off the streets was incredible, and glass is much heavier and doesn’t wash away like cinders, salt, or sand would. So we had huge drifts of glass fragments in all the gutters till spring. They looked exactly like real smashed bottles, so the city looked absolutely filthy. It was essentially a city-wide, government sponsored littering program to make room at the dump.

    Not sure what leads to some countries being well managed, non corrupt, etc. and what leads to others becoming hell-holes, but I do think that there’s a certain ratchet effect to it. It takes an effort of will not to slack off or steal, but once everyone is doing it, you’re a fool if you don’t. It’s really the only stable equilibrium. The only thing to do once you hit it is change the system entirely, if you have that sort of latitude.

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